Bust of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1623–24 (photo: © Zeno Colantoni)

The weary old cardinal, wearing a lace rochet under his mozzetta, no hat, and a simple ring on his right ring finger, bends slightly downward, as if to face the viewer. His puffy eyes are half veiled, his nose prominent; he has a divided goatee, and stubble can be seen on his cheek. His portrait bust was sculptured by the young Gian Lorenzo Bernini, between 1623 and 1624, for a now-lost monument in the Jesuits’ Church of the Gesù in Rome. An early version of what came to be called Bernini’s “speaking likenesses,” its figure and posture together create a likeness of the old man so vivid, it all but breathes.

The figure introduces us to Roberto Bellarmino (1542–1621), the son of impoverished Italian aristocrats, who at the age of eighteen entered the young Society of Jesus, became one of its greatest theologians, and was made a cardinal in 1599 by Pope Clement VIII. Here, late in life, his hands are carefully folded in prayer and his head is turned gently to the right, in an attitude that some see as that of a man lost in thought. But I think his formal prayer has been interrupted. Is he looking perhaps toward what would be the altar and tomb of  St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit order? Or is he, like Thomas Aquinas, realizing that all his many pages were but straw, and simply gazing into the holy mystery of his God?

The imagery is urgent, immediate, and fully rounded, bringing heaven and earth as close together as possible.

This masterpiece in marble, which has never before left Rome, can now be seen in an exquisite exhibition, “The Holy Name: Art of the Gesù: Bernini and his Age,” at the Fairfield University Art Museum in Connecticut; the show celebrates the seventy-fifth anniversary of the school (where Bellarmine is the patron saint). Linda Wolk-Simon, director of the museum, has been extraordinarily resourceful in gathering five priceless loans from the Gesù itself and complementing them with over fifty other paintings, sculptures, drawings, rare books, prints, and precious objects lent by American museums and private collections. The exhibition tells a multilayered story of the Catholic Church and the papacy reasserting itself in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the role played by the Society of Jesus, and the florescence of the Baroque style in painting, sculpture, and architecture.


The story of the Gesù, mother church of the Jesuits and a landmark accomplishment of Baroque architecture, begins with Ignatius of Loyola (1492–1556), who sought to build a major church for his new order. Community opposition and lack of funds stalled the project; but after Loyola’s death, the immensely wealthy Cardinal Alessandro Farnese committed in 1568 to funding the church and brought to it his architect of choice, Jacopo Vignola. Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III, who had approved the Society of Jesus in 1540, was not a man to give without getting. Against the Jesuits’ wishes, as tactfully argued by their then superior general, Francis Borgia (represented in the show by a statue from the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth), Farnese instructed Vignola to give the church an east-west orientation, a barrel-vaulted (rather than flat) nave, and a single-aisled hall ground-plan. Agreement was reached on having three chapels on each side of the nave, a dome above the crossing of nave and (narrow) transept, and an apse beyond. Displeased with Vignola’s design for the façade, however, Farnese in 1571 commissioned Giacomo della Porta for that task.

It is the façade that most clearly marks the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque—a seduction of classical order by free imagination that soon came to influence the style of Jesuit churches in Europe, India, China, and Latin America. Della Porta’s prototype rises two stories high, crowned by a triangular pediment. Paired Corinthian pilasters ascend from the first to the second story, except for the outer pair, which delineate the lower chapels behind them on the sides of the nave. Volutes flank each side of the second story. Above the central portal is a large cartouche bearing the Christogram, IHS, with the name “Farnesius” prominently above it in the cornice running between the two stories.  (IHS is both an acronym for “Jesus Hominum Salvator,” and the first three letters of his name in Greek.)

The Church of the Gesù in Rome (Alessio Damato)

Consecrated in 1584, the church boasted an interior decoration worthy of its status as the central church of the Jesuits. The exhibition artfully illustrates the kind of familiar iconography used early on in the decoration of the side chapels. But when Ignatius and his missionary companion Francis Xavier were canonized in 1622, the way opened to develop special symbolism for both saints. A major loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Domenichino’s Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Vision of Christ and God the Father at La Storta (ca. 1622), typifies many other interpretations of the scene. While praying in a small chapel outside Rome, Ignatius beholds God the Father entrusting him to Jesus, who bears his cross on his shoulder and tells Ignatius that “I will be favorable to you in Rome.” In the background stand Ignatius’s companions, Peter Faber and Diego Lainez. The imagery is urgent, immediate, and fully rounded, bringing heaven and earth as close together as possible.

For Francis Xavier the comparable iconic scene depicts his death on the island of Sancian off the coast of China, surrounded by disciples and native converts. A moving study (modello) of the scene by Giovanni Battista Gaulli (ca. 1682) startlingly shows the saint in the very moment of death, ashen-faced, the crucifix falling from his hand. Other iconic treatments in the exhibition include a striking small bronze of Ignatius with saints and martyrs of the Jesuit order, designed ca. 1629 by Alessandro Algardi, and a pair of bronzes by Francesco Bertos (ca. 1720–1725) of Ignatius with a book bearing the letters AMDG (“Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam,” the motto of the Order) and Xavier with his hand to his ardent heart and an angel holding his crucifix. (All three pieces are loans from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Under the generalate of Fr. Gian Paola Oliva, SJ, an astute politician and Preacher to the Papal Court for over twenty years, a full campaign for the enhancement of the nave, dome, and apse of the church was begun. On the advice of his close friend Bernini, Oliva chose the hitherto unheralded Gaulli (also known as Il Baciccio) for the commission. After completing a Vision of Paradise in the dome, Gaulli turned to the immense nave and there executed one of the wonders of the seventeenth century, The Triumph of the Name of Jesus. Centered on the Christogram in blinding light, and surrounded by a multitude of figures, including stuccoed reprobates who tumble from the edge of the frame and seem to fall directly down toward viewers, the brilliance of color and illusionistic technique are likewise triumphant—and marvelously represented in the show by a superb modello (1676–1679) lent generously by the Princeton University Art Museum.

In a curatorial coup, Wolk-Simon positions directly opposite this modello one of the treasures from the Gesù itself, Gaulli’s painted model for his apse fresco, The Adoration of the Lamb (1690). Oil on canvas laid down on wood, this large, brilliantly coloristic piece guided the artist in planning the final fresco in the apse—a soaring assembly of worshippers before a golden altar and the Lamb of God. Short of a visit to the church in Rome, it is hard to imagine a stronger sense of the ensemble from nave to apse. (Linking them effectively, in the middle of the gallery, is a magnificent chasuble given to the church by Cardinal Farnese [ca. 1575-1589] and another piece from the Gesù.)

Photo: Princeton University Art Museum / Art Resource, NY. From the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum

In the late seventeenth century the chapels of the two great early saints of the order were executed as well: Ignatius’s, to the left in the transept, and Xavier’s to the right. The founder’s was designed by the brilliant Jesuit brother Andrea Pozzo and came to be renowned for its colossal sculptures by Pierre Le Gros (including Ignatius in silver). At Fairfield we see first-hand evidence of its splendor in Ciro Ferri’s half-life-size, gilt bronze statue of St. Teresa of Avila (ca. 1687–1689), sculptured for the altar and presenting the great mystic in the process of writing, and in the lavish cartegloria in silver and gemstones by Johann Adolf Gaap (1699) that contained the Latin text of the Mass on the altar. Xavier’s chapel, designed by Pietro da Cortona, is evoked by several choice drawings, in particular the explosive Apotheosis of Saint Francis Xavier (ca. 1674–1679) of Carlo Maratti, the renowned artist who won the commission for the monumental painting over the altar.

While the exhibition centers on the Gesù and the artists active at the church, it also provides a brief introduction to the Jesuits’ next great church in Rome, Sant’Ignazio. Under the patronage of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi and designed by the Jesuit mathematician Orazio Grassi, the church building began in 1626 next to the Collegio Romano, where more than two thousand students from all over the world were registered at the time. Slightly larger than the Gesù, Sant’Ignazio is remarkable above all for its illusionistic nave fresco St. Ignatius and His Works, painted by Pozzo around 1685.  The Fairfield show includes copies of Pozzo’s immensely influential books on perspective, as well as a drawing study for the altar of the young St. Aloysius Gonzaga, who is buried in the church.

The other day an art historian friend asked me if “Art of the Gesù” is worth seeing even if you have already been to the church itself in Rome. The answer is yes, absolutely—for the outstanding quality of the objects, the beautifully curated focus, and the charming intimacy of the gallery. As Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has said, this is “a magisterial exhibition, the scope and quality of which is not likely to be equaled soon.” A handsome and comprehensive catalogue will be published in March, edited by Linda Wolk-Simon. And the exhibition will be on view through May 19. Time enough to go several times—which I certainly intend to do.

Published in the March 23, 2018 issue: View Contents


Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, is President Emeritus, Georgetown University, and Director of Mission, Jesuit Refugee Service USA. 

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